Saturday, December 24, 2011

An Advent Calendar For Book Lovers: Christmas Eve

As always, the book we must turn to on Christmas Eve is The Gospel according to St. Luke:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Happy Christmas, my dear friends!

Friday, December 23, 2011

An Advent Calendar for Book-Loving Procrastinators

So I've been a little sick lately . . . . I won't bore you with the details, except to say:

1. It is problematic to lose your voice at the end of the semester, when you teach four classes of students who have paid good money for some actual learning to be stuffed into their heads.

2. Pneumonia! It's not just for the elderly! Unless this means I'm now elderly . . . . Hmm. Let me think about that. Anyway -- let's hear it for antibiotics and Robitussin with codeine!

OK, so -- let's get caught up on some excellent Advent reading! I do apologize for not keeping up. These past couple of weeks, breathing has sucked up most of my energy (I think that's a funny play on words, but I'm not sure . . . Bring more Robitussin!). Onward!

Way back on DAY 15 of Advent, when we opened the calendar door, we found a book that I was first introduced to as a song. The Marvelous Toy was originally sung by folk singer Tom Paxton; I vividly remember singing along with my dad as we listened to this fabulous song on the radio on our bi-annual trips to Oklahoma, for Christmas with our cousins. There are several print editions of the poem, all beautifully illustrated. I saw this one in the gift shop at the Kenndey Center, and just loved the bright colors and swirling motion captured by illustrator Steve Cox.

The calendar showed an old favorite on DAY 16: The ladies in my book group reminded me that Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory is a great story to share with your family as you prepare for Christmas. I had forgotten that Capote could write so sweetly and lovingly -- this story is a great reminder.

On DAY 17, the Advent Calendar reminded me that my Latin American friends are in the midst of their traditional Las Posadas celebrations right now. The urchins read Carlos, Light the Farolito a long time ago in school as they learned about Christmas customs around the world. The girl in charge suggested that you might like it as well. We learned a lot about the Mexican traditions around this special time of preparation for la Navidad.

On DAY 18, the Advent Calendar showed us The Gift of the Magi, that fabulous story by O. Henry. I have always, always loved this story. How awesome is this lovely illustrated version of the text?! Just for those who were wondering, P.J. Lynch is the illustrator of the phenomenal The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey -- voted by the urchins as the best Christmas story ever -- and featured in last year's Advent Calendar. Love me some P.J. Lynch! And I dare you not to cry when you read this story:
But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
DAY 19 brings us another book by Berkeley Breathed, of Bloom County fame. This time he gives us a story about his own father's childhood -- Red Ranger Came Calling. This is another one I wish my urchins had known about when they were littler.

On DAY 20, the calendar told me that Hanukkah had begun. Thank you so much to Common Household Mom, who recommended Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. Hershel must confront hobgoblins who will not let the villagers light the menorah for Hanukkah -- just as the ancient Syrians would not let the Hebrew people celebrate their religion. A great spooky winter tale!

DAY 21 brought another Hanukkah story, but this one tells of the friendship and caring that can bring people of different faiths together in the face of adversity. In The Trees of the Dancing Goats, we read about a little girl and her grandfather, who while celebrating Hanukkah, bring Christmas cheer to brighten the holiday for their sick and bed-ridden Christian neighbors. So beautifully illustrated!

On DAY 22, the Advent calendar made me remember the gorgeous book I received from my friend Susan last year -- Why the Chimes Rang. Last year as Susan read about the 2010 Advent Calendar for Book Lovers, she kept wondering why this story wasn't on my list. When I told her I had never heard of it, she burst into tears. Well, not really. What she really did was smack me on the arm and call me a loser. Same thing. Two days later, my own copy of this lovely, lovely story arrived in the mail. There are many, many beautifully illustrated versions of this tale, but you can listen to it right now and read along, at this cool link.

Tonight, Coleen had the whole family over for dinner, and of course we had a swell time -- even though I'm still feeling a little winded, and the tall boy has continued his winter tradition of bronchial nonsense. Coleen nearly cut her hand off shucking oysters, so that's a tradition she's managed to keep alive as well. It was worth it though -- look how pretty they were!

So in honor of Coleen, on DAY 23 of our Advent Calendar, I offer you the Christmas section of Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Coleen says this is her favorite "Little House" Christmas story, because of the fabulous and mouth-watering descriptions of food! I was always amazed at the thought of that long table, heaped to groaning with pork chops and chicken and ham, and mashed potatoes and all those vegetables they had grown -- and that Little House delicacy -- "apples 'n' onions!" Yum!

Well -- I'm sorry this post is so long -- but it does feel good to be caught up -- just in time!

Happy reading, everyone!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We do clean up kind of nice

So this past weekend the husband and I got all dolled up and went to his company's Christmas bash, which is always just way, way fun.

Much merriment ensued, what with an open bar and a hotel reservation -- and no babysitter with a curfew, either!

We have come to look forward to this annual casino night, which I think is so much more fun than watching a bunch of whippersnappers dancing to music that I don't know or like.

Instead, we feel like high rollers, gambling away our play money. It's so freeing to bet a thousand dollars -- and then to say, "Oh heck -- make it two thousand!"

A fabulous time, with terrifically fun friends -- it was a great way to celebrate!


Our Advent calendar book today is Big Susan. Mr. and Mrs. Doll and their children and servants belong to Big Susan, and live in a house with no front. On Christmas Eve every year, they can move about without needing Susan to help them.

This is such a sweet story -- thanks, Cassi Renee!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Thirteen

Here's a fabulous book behind today's door of our Advent calendar! In Auntie Claus, young Sophie grows suspicious when her Auntie Claus mysteriously disappears every winter -- and returns around Valentine's Day. One year she stows away in her aunt's luggage, and is whisked away to the North Pole. There she plunges into adventure and discovers her glamorous aunt's true identity!

Many friends recommended this charming book, which is filled with vivid illustrations and fun details. Enjoy!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Because there's festive and then there's just mean

Well, we are slowly but surely sparkle-izing our home, getting ready for Christmas. I've said it before -- I do like to stroll into the merry season. But it does seem like every year the culture makes that harder and harder to do.

Now, just to be clear -- I'm not talking about people like my neighbor, whose yard was filled on Thanksgiving weekend with a menagerie of whimsical critters who twinkle the night away. This is festive, people! I can get behind this, even if my family's lights are a tad more subdued (and we got them put up a little bit later).

No, I'm talking about the cut-throat, competitive people who are in a race to see who can be "done" the soonest. And the culture (but really by culture I mean "advertisers") fosters this Grinchy attitude. Have you seen the dreadful Best Buy and Target commercials? In the Target commercial we see a mash-up of gleeful shoppers -- and not one of them says the word Christmas or holiday or celebrate. What's the one word they holler so joyfully? "Done!"

Warms your heart, doesn't it?

And here's a terrific Washington Post article about the Best Buy commercials, which are just plain mean -- to Santa, of all people!

Well -- I plan to stick to my slowpoke ways, and bring out a little more sparkle every day. We have our wreaths and our Advent calendar, and as of this weekend we have a (bare) tree. And eventually the little baby Jesus will celebrate another birthday -- right on time.


Our Advent calendar today shows us Sister Wendy's Story of Christmas. Our family loves Sister Wendy, who has guided viewers through the great art museums of the world on several PBS series. She has written several books for children, in which she introduces them to beautiful art. This book uses masterpieces by the world's great artists to tell the story of the Nativity.

Thanks, Jack and Matthew!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Eleven

Today's Advent calendar book is perfect for families who are experiencing the first big snow of the season -- or for families who are still hoping for that first fat flake. It beautifully illustrates the Robert Frost poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Gorgeous.

Thanks, Robert!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Ten

Oh, my goodness! So many people recommended this book to me I can't even count them all. And I love it -- I can't believe my family never came upon this fantastic story when we were younger. Rumer Godden, people! In This House of Brede is only one of my favorite books of all time.

The Story of Holly and Ivy tells us about an orphan named Ivy, a doll named Holly, and a couple who yearn for a child. So sweet!

Thanks, Suburban Correspondent!

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Nine

Today behind the Advent calendar door we find The Birds' Christmas Carol, which was given to the urchins by Grandma Carol (born on Christmas Day, just like the Carol in this story). This little book (not quite a novel, but longer than a storybook) was one of the first gifts the urchins received from their new grandmother, soon after she and Grandpa got married. So it's "recommended" by Grandma Carol, but it is very dear to us as well.

Carol Bird is a cherished Christmas gift to her family; born on Christmas Day, her name describes her perfectly, since she sings all the time. Frail and often ill, she nevertheless brings joy and hope to everyone as she plans a special Christmas celebration for the nine young Ruggles children who live nearby.

I owned this version of the little story when I was in elementary school; I spent sixty cents of my own money to buy it from the Scholastic Book flier that came home from school. Isn't it strange? I totally remember it being called The Birds' Christmas Carol -- I distinctly remember thinking that her name was such a clever pun. But look: this edition has a different (more straightforward, more boring) title. Memory is such a strange thing . . . .

Thanks, Grandma Carol, for bringing this sweet story back into my life!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Eight

Look what a lovely, lovely picture book is behind the door of our Advent calendar today! A Day on Skates is a perfect book for today -- the first truly cold wintery day in December for us around here. I just love the beautifully detailed illustrations!

Thanks, Beth and Rachel!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Advent Calendar: Day Seven

Berkeley Breathed's lovable penguin Opus is featured in this cute Christmas story, A Wish For Wings That Work. All Opus wants is to be able to fly like other birds -- but his wings will not allow it. Will Santa Claus grant Opus's Christmas wish?

Thanks, Peter!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Feast of St. Nicholas

So did you put your shoes outside your door last night? Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, so if you have been very good this year, you might have received some toys and treats in your shoes!

Most people know that St. Nicholas (who for the most part has evolved into Santa Claus here in the United States) is the patron saint of children in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. But did you know that this understanding stems from the story of how Nicholas, then Bishop of Smyrna, saved three boys who had been murdered and pickled in brine?! Some people with dark senses of humor honor this aspect of St. Nicholas by eating corned beef today. I'm talking about you, "The Mother."

The whole "stockings hung by the chimney with care" thing stems from another story about the Bishop of Smyrna, who found out that three young daughters of a household in his care were about to be sold into slavery -- which in those times meant prostitution. To prevent this tragedy, Nicholas secretly threw three bags of gold through the family's window -- enough for a dowry for each of the girls. Legend tells us that the bags landed in the girls' stockings, which were hung by the chimney to dry. Thus, when we hang our stockings or put out our shoes in hopes of receiving a Christmas treat, we are honoring St. Nicholas in his role as the patron saint of prostitutes.


Well, for our Advent calendar on the Feast of St. Nicholas, what could be more appropriate than the Clement C. Moore classic? Sometimes this book is titled, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, but it was originally published as A Visit From St. Nicholas. I don't know about you, but somewhere along the way I had to memorize this bad boy in school. This edition has particularly lovely illustrations.

Thanks to all of you who suggested this book!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Help! I'm being buried alive!

Look at this, people! All of these catalogs have arrived in my home in the past week. Yes -- I said "week."

I counted 'em up: the grand total = 93 catalogs.

So let's think about the math involved here. In seven days I received ninety-three catalogs. OK, let me lick my pencil . . . carry the 11 . . . solving for pi . . . . It turns out that I received an average of thirteen catalogs -- every single day. Am I crazy or doesn't that seem a wee bit excessive to you?

Now don't get me wrong. I love to read a catalog in the bathroom as much as the next girl. But have mercy, catalog publishers! If I read all of the catalogs, how will I ever find the time to keep up with my People magazine and National Enquirer? And by the way -- I thought we were all working together to save the planet here. I find it kind of hilarious that I have to pay my bank an extra $4.00 per month for the privilege of receiving paper copies of my statements, but Pottery Barn and Coldwater Creek and Levenger are willing to send me the most glamorous and slick magazines (often twice in one week) absolutely free!

Let's see what else we've got here:

I love getting the Restoration Hardware catalog, even though there is not a chance on God's beautiful spinning Earth that I could afford anything in it, except maybe the vintage Bingo game. That actually looks pretty cool.

You know this family is going to get an opportuntiy to make some purchase from the fine, fine people at Softball Sales. Good thing we heard from them, too -- because the girl in charge needs a new bag.

It makes me a little sad that I no longer have urchins who would love to get something from the Chinaberry catalog; once upon a time we would have placed a giant Christmas order with them -- fabulous books for the little urchins, people! But these days, the tall boy's wish list has Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Jim Butcher on it, while the girl in charge is immersed in the Game of Thrones series, and the sunny girl is yearning for anything steampunk. We're just not gonna find these items in the Chinaberry catalog. They are aimed more at the Pat the Bunny crowd.

I do still love the folks at Bas Bleu -- they never fail to point out a book or an author to make me happy. My heart was completely warmed yesterday when the girl in charge handed me the most recent edition of the catalog, with several pages turned down. Love that girl!

Should I be concerned about the reputation I must be developing amongst the catalogers? I received not only Wine Enthusiast . . .

. . . but Wine Country Gift Baskets -- on the same day! Hmmm. . . . and no catalog from the Coca-Cola Company. I should lodge a protest!

And I'm sorry -- I just find this the silliest catalog ever -- a catalog of Catalog Favorites. So is this like the Readers' Digest condensed version of all those damned catalogs I've been getting since late September? And just how do they know these are my own personal favorites? Is there a softball bag in this catalog? I don't think so! Rubber Ducky p.j.s? Not a chance! Lego Death Star? Oh, please!

I'll just stick to ignoring my ninety-three catalogs, thank you!


And on Day Five, behind the door of our Advent Calendar we find Peter Spier's Christmas!. This is actually a book that our family also enjoyed, when the urchins were very little. This is another wordless book, with illustrations that are so intricate and involved that children will pore over it for hours and hours, noticing fabulous details in every corner of every illustration. Our copy of this wonderful book fell apart years ago -- and sadly it is no longer in print. I'll bet, though, that diligent sleuths will be able to find it at a used book store. I have had great luck at

Thanks, Ava!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Four

Here is another story I wish my family had known about before they all turned into teenagers! Annika's Secret Wish is the story of a ten-year-old Swedish girl. She knows that the child who finds the almond in the special Christmas pudding will have a wish come true, and Annika so wishes for beautiful black pony! But when she finds that she has been given the special almond, she also discovers that it may just be more magical to give a gift than to receive it.

Thanks, June!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Advent Calendar: Day Three

This fabulous book features photographs as illustrations (the most gorgeous phtography, people!) to tell the story of the animals of the woods who come to investigate the snowman who magically appears in a clearing.

I have looked at Stranger in the Woods so many times in bookstores, and have always been taken by its simple beauty. A great winter book!

Thanks, Mary!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent Calendar: Day Two

The book behind door number two of our Advent calendar is Olive, the Other Reindeer, by Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold.  Olive the adorable dog is preparing for Christmas and listening to holiday tunes.  When she hears the words to the famous song about Rudolf, she suddenly understands:  she is the other reindeer!  This is a great little story for little ones who are just beginning to understand how hilarious puns and word tricks can be.

Thanks, Barbara!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My mother's dishes: NOT a love story

So this Thanksgiving, as we do every year, my sister and I each pulled out our vintage and oh-so-collectible "Jewel Tea" dishes. Her meal was served in Roanoke, while I filled the gravy boat up here in the southern part of northern Virginia -- but we both used these Depression era dishes, because, I mean really. Look at them. They're perfect for Thanksgiving. That and because our mother would haunt us if we didn't.

See, Carolyn and I have what you might call a love-hate relationship with these dishes (their official name is "Hall China Autumn Leaf," but they were always called "Jewel Tea" in our family, because in the 1930s they were given to housewives -- like my grandmother -- as premiums when the ladies bought tea and spices from the door-to-door reps from the Jewel Tea Company). We do love them, because they were our mother's. And while their beauty and aesthetic loveliness frankly kind of escape us, we both realize that Mom cherished them. How do we know this? We know this because by the time she died she had:
  • redecorated her kitchen to feature them, to include commissioning a friend to create a matching stencil pattern;
  • purchased a shockingly expensive, custom-made-to-match-her-dishes, Tiffany-style lamp to hang over the breakfast table;
  • hung the dessert plates interspersed with orange and yellow baskets around the kitchen on the wall space above the cabinets (cunningly connected by the stencil pattern);
  • joined the "Hall China 'Autumn Leaf' Collectors' Club" (that's where she found the guy who made the lamp);
  • owned a linen tablecloth and twelve napkins that had been stenciled by the same friend (see above), so that when she entertained her table was all Jewel Tea, all the time;
  • spent way more money than my dad ever knew, tracking down and purchasing the rarer pieces of the pattern: a "one-armed bean pot;" the coveted "2 lb. butter dish" (I mean, it's a butter dish that will hold eight sticks of butter, people); not only the formal and everyday salt and pepper shakers, but the "cook's salt and pepper shakers" as well;
  • amassed enough place settings of these fricking dishes that my sister and I each have a complete set. And by complete, I mean we each own twelve place settings. Twelve, y'all. Plus serving bowls, platters, pie plates, iced tea glasses, coffee mugs, tea pots . . . . Plus some other shit I can't even remember.
But see, we really don't think they're as lovely as she did. We both have white dishes for every day, and we both chose fancy china patterns when we got married because our mother made us. She made us choose a silver pattern, too -- and we both very cleverly chose her silver pattern. So one thing I love, love, love is that I have my silver and my mother's, mingling all together. The other pattern in this picture is my grandmother's, which I adore but which is no longer made. I always, always use the two patterns together.

Last year about this time, my sister and I were reminiscing about our mom and we got to laughing our asses off, yet again, about all that "damned Jewel Tea" (that's how we have always talked about it). I regret to inform you that we were not kind about these dishes. Well, fifteen minutes later, my sister texted me; here is our "conversation:

HER: Right after I hung up a damned Jewel Tea bowl fell and broke. I'm freaking out.
ME: Mom must be pissed.
HER: Now I'm crying.
ME: And I'm laughing. Don't cry! They're ugly. The world is a better place.
HER: OK, now I'm laughing.

We have considered selling the damned things on eBay, or Craigslist; I really do think that the entire collection could pay for at least a year of someone's college expenses. But we never get around to it. So most of it lives in multiple, multiple boxes in my attic. And a few pieces live in our kitchens, so we can use them at Thanksgiving.

Because they're perfect.


And hey! Today begins our second annual Book Lovers' Advent Calendar! This year I am sampling books that have been recommended to me by friends who said last year, "How could you possibly leave out our family's favorite??" I am discovering a whole new collection of storybooks to love!

As we open the first door of the Advent calendar, we find The Snowman, which is a lovely little book with no words (I love those!). My family is actually familiar with this story as an animated film, but -- as is always the case -- the book is better. Thanks, Kathy!